Another No. 1-ranked basketball recruiting class will be headed to the University of Kentucky this summer, but the Wildcats still have some holes to fill.
UK’s most glaring need for the 2017-18 season appears to be in the backcourt, where the Cats are expected to lose every scholarship guard from this past season’s team. Dominique Hawkins and Mychal Mulder were seniors, De’Aaron Fox declared for the NBA draft on Tuesday and UK is expecting underclassmen Isaiah Briscoe and Malik Monk to go pro as well.
Five-star point guard Quade Green is prepared to lead the Cats next season, and he’ll be joined by fellow freshmen Hamidou Diallo and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but UK’s coaches are looking for at least one more talented guard to join them.
Illinois Mr. Basketball Mark Smith might be the Cats’ best option.
Smith — a 6-foot-5, 225-pound prospect from Edwardsville — averaged 21.9 points, 8.2 rebounds, 8.4 assists and 2.1 steals per game as a senior, leading his high school team to a 30-2 record.
He shot 40 percent from three-point range, made 84 percent of his free throws and has a reputation as an unselfish, team-first player, a seemingly perfect fit for what John Calipari and the UK coaches are looking for in a late addition for next season.
“He’s an excellent playmaker, in the fact that he really sees the floor well and is willing to take what the defense gives every time down the floor,” Edwardsville Coach Mike Waldo told the Herald-Leader. “We had a big guy on our team, and when we played teams that couldn’t defend us inside, he was very willing to come down and throw it in the post the first 10 trips down the floor. When he’s open he scores, and when he’s not open he passes.
“He’s big enough to see things, and he’s got great judgment.”
Until a few months ago, he was largely unknown outside of Illinois.
Smith was a three-sport standout as a youngster — football, basketball and baseball — and he was committed to play baseball for Missouri until an elbow injury derailed his pitching career. His dedication to that sport meant less time on the basketball court, and that meant less exposure to college recruiters.
“He wasn’t really known that well because he hasn’t played too much AAU basketball,” Waldo said. “And I think that’s where most of the recruiting takes place now. I think that’s probably why he was more unknown until this year.”
Smith hit the AAU circuit last summer and came into this past season with a basketball-first mindset. College coaches were quick to notice.
The recruiting attention started with the mid-majors, but Smith’s profile has blown up in recent weeks. Rivals.com now ranks him as the No. 78 player in the 2017 class.
Missouri Coach Cuonzo Martin and Illinois Coach Brad Underwood immediately placed calls to Smith when they took over those programs last month.
Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo was in Edwardsville last week, and he gave Smith a scholarship offer during that visit. Rumors that Smith made a verbal commitment to Izzo are, thusfar, unsubstantiated.
Ohio State, Butler and Northwestern are among his other offers.
Kentucky could join that list soon.
UK assistant coach Kenny Payne reached out to Smith shortly after the Wildcats’ season ended, and UK coaches are expected to be in Illinois on Thursday to meet with the state’s Mr. Basketball.
Waldo said he hasn’t been involved in Smith’s recruitment — noting that the player and his family are doing a great job of handling the increasing interest from college coaches themselves — but he’s not surprised by all of the recent attention.
“He’s always been a good player for us, and a lot of guys just keep getting better from the time they’re 15 to the time they’re 18,” Waldo said.
“He’s a very good example of, ‘If you bring it every day, good things happen.’ He practices hard every day and he competes hard in every game. If you do that, good things are going to happen for you.”